38th ASEAN ROUNDTABLE: ASEAN in a Fragmented Global Order

Tuesday, 3 October 2023 – The ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute held its 38th ASEAN Roundtable, themed “ASEAN in a Fragmented Global Order” on 3 October 2023 at the Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel. The aim of this year’s Roundtable is to examine ASEAN’s central role as the primary forum for dialogue and cooperation in Southeast Asia and its relevance in shaping the future of the region.

The Roundtable was supported by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.

Welcome Remarks

Mr Choi Shing Kwok gave the Welcome Remarks. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

In his Welcome Remarks, Mr Choi Shing Kwok, ISEAS Director and CEO spoke of ASEAN’s relevance in shaping the future of Southeast Asia and navigating the global order, which is at risk of fragmentation. He highlighted that regional flashpoints such as the South China Sea disputes, tensions in the Taiwan Strait, the situation in the Korean Peninsula, and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War would continue to be sources of unpredictable developments. He added that on the economic front, rising geopolitical tensions have also affected the global and regional economy. As such, effective implementation of initiatives such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP) and the upcoming ASEAN Digital Economy Framework Agreement (DEFA) would play a key role in supporting ASEAN economic integration and ensuring the regional organisation remains relevant.

Keynote Address

Dr Kao Kim Hourn gave the Keynote Address “ASEAN’s Role and Relevance in a Troubled World”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

In his Keynote Address, Secretary-General of ASEAN Dr Kao Kim Hourn emphasised that ASEAN’s mechanisms, diplomacy, dialogue, and trust-building in an open and transparent manner have brought together not only external partners but also investors and other stakeholders to the region. To ensure that the role of ASEAN remains prominent, especially in promoting prosperity and sustainable development, he added that ASEAN would need to continue to work on four levels – bilaterally, sub-regionally, regionally, and globally.

Q&A session with Dr Kao Kim Hourn, and Mr Choi Shing Kwok as moderator. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Session I: Forces of Fragmentation

From left to right: Prof Zhu Feng, Dr William Choong (moderator), Mr Paul Haenle and Prof Joseph Liow. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

This session shed light on how the US and China view each other and how ASEAN is positioning itself in response to the intensifying major power rivalries in the region. The session was moderated by Dr William Choong, ISEAS Senior Fellow.

Mr Paul Haenle, Maurice R. Greenberg Director’s Chair at Carnegie China, highlighted the prevalence of “duelling narratives” when it comes to the US-China rivalry. He reaffirmed the region’s sentiments that the US is concerned about a rising China, in part due to economic development that is coupled with China’s military capability and build-up. He was of the view that greater engagement between the US and China at both high-level and Working Group levels is an appropriate way forward that would create an affirmative agenda for the benefit of the region.

Prof Zhu Feng, Executive Director at the China Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea, spoke of the rationale for China’s economic advancement and its concerns about being the peer challenger of the US. However, economic linkages between China and the world remain strong and interdependent. He also believed that China’s economic growth has a stabilising effect on the world’s economy, including the US.

Prof Joseph Liow, Dean and Tan Kah Kee Chair Professor of Comparative and International Politics at Nanyang Technological University, explored how ASEAN and Southeast Asia can position themselves in managing external partners. He highlighted the 4Cs, namely: (i) Choice, focusing on functional cooperation and relations rather than making binary strategic choices; (ii) Contingency, noting the need for ASEAN to engage with the proliferation of organisations and institutions with overlapping interests; (iii) Centrality, highlighting the need for ASEAN to go beyond processes to set clear objectives in managing great power competition in the region; and (iv) Coherence, emphasising the importance of unity amongst ASEAN member states.

Session II: Is Economic Integration ASEAN’s only Raison D’etre?

From left to right: Dr Sanchita Basu Das, Dr Jayant Menon (moderator), Dr Julia Tijaja and Dr Ming Tan. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The second session focused on the impact of economic fragmentation and assessed how the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) can build resilience and find new opportunities to advance the grouping’s integration and growth. Session II was moderated by Dr Jayant Menon, ISEAS Senior Fellow.

Dr Sanchita Basu Das, Economist at the Asian Development Bank, underscored the importance of improving ASEAN’s competitiveness not only to increase trade and investment in the region but also to enhance the “plus” arrangements – ranging from the harmonisation of standards to the advancement of domestic reforms. She also highlighted the need to focus on people-centric deliverables, sustainable and green economy, as well as to strengthen policies such as in the area of supply chains.

Dr Julia Tijaja, ISEAS Associate Senior Fellow, highlighted that the AEC is at a crossroads. While noting good achievements of the AEC, including new frameworks in place and positive recovery from the pandemic, she also underlined institutional shortcomings, such as gaps in the implementation of ASEAN’s economic blueprints and the lack of institutional readiness to deal with cross-cutting issues. To enhance cross-sectoral cooperation, she underscored the importance of putting in place processes to deal with emerging challenges, being proactive in shaping rules and standards, and strengthening ASEAN as an institution.

Dr Ming Tan, Founding Executive Director of Tech for Good Institute, highlighted digitalisation as the driver of economic growth but emphasised that it is not an end in itself. Although there was a high rate of digital adoption and penetration, she believed there was a need for ASEAN to be more connected and digitally interoperable. This would enhance ASEAN’s attractiveness as a market and increase its voice in shaping the digital landscape. With such rapid developments, human capital requirements, such as cybersecurity expertise, will be of utmost importance going ahead.

Session III: Managing Potential Regional Flashpoints

From left to right: Prof Jay Batongbacal, Dr Ian Storey (moderator), Prof Kristy Hsu and Dr Yongwook Ryu. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The third session examined how a fragmented global order creates greater uncertainties in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, and the Korean Peninsula. This session was moderated by Dr Ian Storey, ISEAS Senior Fellow.

In exploring the viability of the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, Prof Jay Batongbacal, Director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines, provided an understanding of the developments in the strategic waters, as well as the concept and criteria of a successful and effective COC. He highlighted the importance of building trust and confidence, exercising self-restraint and limiting coercive force, as well as managing divergent views between ASEAN claimant states vis-à-vis China.

Prof Kristy Hsu, Director of the Taiwan ASEAN Studies Center, highlighted that the outbreak of hostilities in the Taiwan Strait could impact the economy, especially the semiconductor sector. She also elaborated on Taiwan’s move to reduce economic dependence on China by moving towards a more global approach, including greater engagement with Southeast Asia, in the areas of electronics, ICT, and chip production.

Dr Yongwook Ryu, Assistant Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, made an important connection between the stability of the Korean Peninsula and Southeast Asia. He noted that ASEAN can help to promote peace in the Korean Peninsula through diplomatic engagement and to encourage the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s engagement with the international community.

Session IV: ASEAN in the Age of Multipolarity

From left to right: Ms Sharon Seah (moderator), Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan, Mr Richard Maude and Dr Imelda Deinla (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The last session explored how ASEAN can navigate the current fragmented global order. This is especially relevant in light of an increasing divide between maritime and continental member states in ASEAN, yet the need for consensus approach remains. Ms Sharon Seah, ISEAS Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Centre moderated the session.

In the face of a growing divide within ASEAN, Dr Imelda Deinla, Senior Lecturer at the University of New England in Australia, highlighted the need for ASEAN to manage common interests and diverging individual interests. She suggested that ASEAN engage in deeper cooperation to bridge the divide and to enhance legitimacy, to anchor itself on shared values and interests, as well as to use a mix of non-coercive and coercive regulatory mechanisms to enhance problem-solving.

Mr Richard Maude, Senior Fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, highlighted that for middle powers, the stakes are high in the US-China rivalry, especially if fragmentation worsens. Middle powers could play an important role in keeping the peace and maintaining security in the region by encouraging multilateralism, compliance with international law, and playing a role in conflict prevention. While mediating may be challenging, small and middle powers can encourage great powers to work together to address common challenges, such as accelerating energy transition.

With regard to ASEAN’s consensus-decision making approach, Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan, Chairman of the Middle East Institute, emphasised that a key concern lies not in the principle itself, but rather in the inadequate socialisation of the process, especially in socialising new members into ASEAN norms and principles. He added that consensus does not mean unanimity and that there are exceptional situations where the process can be set aside. Although no country or organisation can pursue a consistent foreign policy, member states must exercise political judgement when assessing a particular situation, and consider both national and regional interests.

Ms Joanne Lin closed the event with her concluding remarks. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

In her Concluding Remarks, Ms Joanne Lin, Co-coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Centre summarised the topics and issues discussed over the four sessions. She said that there were various developments and challenges affecting ASEAN and the region, and new dynamics were happening at a faster pace than ever before. However, ASEAN still matters to all its member states and its partners, and it needs to find ways to enhance its agency and preserve its relevance in the region.

The Roundtable was organised as a fully in-person event and attended by over 200 participants.

(Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Download the Welcome Remarks here.

View the event recordings here.